The core reason for the crumbling of the US empire is a familiar refrain in imperial history. As US economic power declines and continually makes strategic mistakes its military capacity will be jeopardised, and its network of client states will start to challenge its capacity to ensure their security.
In the late nineteenth century the percentage of global industrial output in the UK declined sharply as the US and Germany became the engine house of production. As its industrial heart began to wane its military base became overstretched, and the sun began to set on its empire. World War One was a brutal awakening. It exposed the UK as a mirage of power. The UK was only able to finance the war by turning to Wall Street. JP Morgan and other banks kept the UK in the battle, but the price was Wall Street becoming the financial hub of global capitalism.
With imperial decline the mandarins who run global empires can exhibit increasingly erratic behaviour as the fear of losing ascendancy increases. Not losing the best parts of the globe obsessed the UK ruling elite in the 1930s as they realised they lacked the power to fend off the combined weight of Germany, Italy and Japan. The plan was to get the fascist powers and Soviet Russia to obliterate one another, and the UK could pick up the pieces. That scheme was spiked by Stalin signing a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany. The upshot was the US had to rescue the UK in World War Two―but at a price. The Lend Lease program bled the UK white, and Roosevelt demanded the dissolution of the British Empire. The US power elite filled the global vacuum.
Now it is the turn of the US to feel the heat from an imperial competitor snapping at its heels. As Conrad graphically shows in Heart of Darkness, violence is a component part of imperialism. But fading empires lift the tempo in violence as they feel the orb of their control slipping away. The US made it clear as far back as the 1992 Wolfowitz doctrine that nothing would stop it remaining the only superpower. Any pretenders to the throne would be met with violence is the theme which resonates through the Wolfowitz doctrine. So it has proved.
Look no further than the corollary of its defeat in Afghanistan to realise the US will go down fighting on every front. When military power fails every device will be utilised to stem the road to perdition.
As the Taliban marched on Kabul, their representatives received a warm welcome in Beijing. China made it clear to the Taliban that they wanted a strong government in Afghanistan that could provide security. China was at pains to point out Afghanistan must not give refuge to separatist fighters from the Uyghur East Turkistan Islamic Movement. The Taliban assured China the border between Afghanistan and China would be airtight, and they would not countenance any infiltration of Chinese territory by any group hostile to China. The path was open for Chinese investment to flow into Afghanistan from a country brimming with surplus capital.
Once the Taliban took control in Afghanistan, Chinese humanitarian aid began to roll in. But the Taliban leadership yearns for the enrichment of the economy which is the path out of the underdevelopment that has been the scourge of Afghanistan. They want the royalty rates from an untapped mining sector. China is keen to oblige. Now after decades of war and conflict the climate is safe for China to start developing the world’s largest known deposit of copper. The Mes Aynak Copper Mine will provide thousands of jobs to locals, and boost Afghanistan revenues. Afghanistan has also offered Chinese companies exploration rights to search for oil.
The US observed these developments and the response came in the form of economic warfare. The US froze Afghanistan’s foreign funds deposited in US banks, and imposed crippling sanctions. The US also used its weight to make sure foreign aid from organs like the World Bank, IMF, USAID and the Asian Development Bank dried up. This in a country racked by high unemployment, skyrocketing poverty rates and where half the children are severely malnourished.
This was the parlous state of affairs before a devastating earthquake occurred in Afghanistan that has killed over one thousand and left thousands injured and homeless. Countries like China, Iran and Pakistan rushed to supply aid and medicines to Afghanistan. The US stood aloof claiming any aid would end up in the pocket of the Taliban. Also the US has not baulked at using the women’s rights issue to resist going to the assistance of Afghanistan in its desperate hour of need.
The Taliban government has responded to the US claims by noting it pledges not to siphon off any foreign aid. It is also begging the US to lift crippling sanctions, and unfreeze its funds locked up in US banks so the billions can be used to help those impacted by the earthquake.
The Taliban government has cogently noted funding to the health system to deal with the crisis should not depend on human rights matters, but the needs of the affected people. It has also questioned why it is being dealt with so savagely by the US on human rights when countries taking away the rights of Muslim minorities get off scot free. Moreover, the Taliban pointed out the US is not beyond stripping human rights as the Supreme Court showed in overturning Roe v Wade.
Making such eloquent arguments is unlikely to cut any ice with the Biden administration. The US is involved in an existential struggle with China, and Afghanistan must be made to be seen to pay a price for moving out of the US orbit. Also, Pakistan must be seen to witness what is happening in Afghanistan, as it engages in rising anti-Americanism and is the recipient of rich funding from Belt and Road projects.
The top of the world is a sad place. And the US is reinforcing the sadness that looms large across the valleys of Afghanistan. It was a deep moral failure for US mandarins to allow the bitterness of their defeat to consume their human kinship with the victims of the Afghanistan earthquake. But their omission is all part of the convulsions of an empire in its twilight phase.